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More disasters for Asia?

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | August 12, 2002

With flooding and drought already wracking parts of Asia, millions of people could face even more disasters due to a huge pollution cloud hanging over the area and changing rainfall.

Already this rainy season, thousands are homeless and hundreds of people have died in Korea and southern China after torrential rains triggered landslides.

In Korea, more than 400 people are dead or missing after a week of flooding dumped two-fifths of the average yearly rainfall. Landslides have engulfed buildings and homes.

South Korean government reports indicated the country had deployed 32,000 soldiers with rescue gear over the weekend.

In North Korea, more than 22,500 have been left homeless, according to the Red Crescent Society. Faith-based groups and other relief groups were working to provide plastic sheeting, blankets, water purification tablets and medical aid. The western provinces of South Phyongan and South Hwanghae were hardest hit. The flooding coincided with strong winds and was aggravated by water surges from burst dams.

Roads, railways and bridges have been damaged, as have thousands of acres of crops in a country still experiencing severe food shortages.

Communication was still down for many areas in both South and North Korea, and government officials said the damage toll could rise.

In China, flooding was concentrated in Hunan province in the rice-growing region. Areas about 370 miles north of Hong Kong were hit the worst in four years, according to Chinese government officials.

More than 900 people have been killed this year in China’s seasonal floods.

On top of the present disasters, a huge smog cloud is looming over southern Asia, and the approach of the global weather phenomenon El Nino threatened to bring even more deadly weather to Asia.

A UN study found that a two-mile thick cloud of ash, acids, aerosols and other particles – dubbed by scientists “the Asian brown cloud” -- has been damaging agriculture and changing rainfall patterns stretching from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka. The UN said that millions of lives were potentially at risk from the resulting altered patterns of rainfall.

UN Environment Program Chief Klaus Toepfer said the poisonous cloud was the result of forest fires, burning of agricultural wastes, increases in the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles, industries and power stations and emissions from millions of inefficient cookers.

The study found that the cloud's heat-absorbing properties were warming the lower atmosphere considerably, and the combination was altering the winter monsoon, leading to a sharp reduction in rainfall over parts of north-western Asia and a corresponding rise in rainfall over the eastern coast of Asia.

The report also found the cloud was making the rain acid, damaging crops and trees, and threatening hundreds of thousands of people with respiratory disease.

In the past it was not a brown cloud but El Nino that was blamed for a devastating drought in Southeast Asia five years ago, and the region could see similar conditions this year, climatologists predict.

El Nino has already exacerbated an existing drought in Australia. The country’s wheat crops will likely shrink from 24 million tons to only 17 million, according to government estimates. Australia is considered the bread basket for much of Asia and the Middle East. Australia typically ships about seven tons of wheat to Asia in a year.

Vietnam has also seen signs of El Nino. Residents there are facing the worst drought in 27 years. Thousands of acres of rice crops have been ruined.

Meanwhile Europe and India have also been hit with floods. More than 30 people have died and scores were missing after flooding hit southern Russian particularly hard.


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